Helping Those Who Help Themselves

“I am only one, but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” – Helen Keller

We feel best helping those people who help themselves.  Both as team members and leaders of change, we are inspired by people who rise above their lot in life through hard work, determination and perseverance and we long to find ways to support their success.  Conversely, we harden ourselves to the endless complaints of people who blame everyone else for their problems and refuse to take responsibility for their own mess and do something about it.

The explosion of social innovation speaks to this desire to help people who want to help themselves.  Kiva is a good example.  Kiva is a micro-finance organization that matches thousands of individual lenders with entrepreneurs opportunities around the world.  For as little as $25, the KIVA network loans money to people who want nothing more than a chance to work hard, create a better life for themselves and pay back the money loaned to them.  Since its inception in 2005, Kiva has led to over $192 million in loans in 210 countries with a 98.92% repayment rate.

So what can KIVA’s model teach us about creating a groundswell of support and driving change in your organization?

Every great cause starts with a great story.  Spend time putting a name and a face to both the impact of the problems you face as well as your efforts to find a solution.  Every loan at Kiva starts with a compelling story about a person and their passion to create a positive difference.

Supporting your activities should be simple and easy.  If you want others to support your efforts, make supporting you easy.  The easier it is, the more likely you are to get it.

Provide regular feedback on your progress.  The secret to getting meaningful support is providing relevant and personal feedback on your progress.  Use more than one media channel to spread your message and create a rhythm to your updates.

Inspire people to support you again.  If you have followed the previous lessons, you are well on your way to enlisting support for your future endeavors.  Success breeds success and people love to align their support with people who have demonstrated the capacity to translate action and accountability into positive outcomes.

The moral here is that if you want to create a groundswell of support for your initiatives, quit whining about what you can’t change and identify those things you can.  Prioritize your issues based on shared pain, carve out a few hours throughout your week and improve those things you can impact now.  Once you begin to take action, aggressively share your activities with others.   Demonstrate the positive impact of the change in your area and make a visible statement that you refuse to complain, but will aggressively tackle anything in your control.  If you follow these steps, you will “pull” support from other team members and inspire those in a position of authority to help you achieve more than you thought possible.

 

Inspiring People to Achieve Epic Wins

“An Epic Win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. it was almost beyond the threshold of imagination and when you get there you are shocked to discover what you are truly capable of.” – Jane McGonigal

The problem with many teams I meet is that they have been conditioned to accept their processes and work environment as fixed.  Time after time I hear them say, “we can’t change that…that will never be allowed…we tried to do that, but they said no…that isn’t possible,” etc.  They embrace failure before they start.  What’s worse, underlying these and similar sentiments is the heartbreaking fact that they lack confidence in themselves and their ability to positively affect change.

The online gaming industry has exploded in recent years, and according to Jane McGonigal, one of the reasons for the meteoric rise is the connection online games make with people on a deeply emotional level.  Well designed games allow people to experience challenge, achievement, and feedback in ways reality does not.  Through a series of progressively harder challenges and real time feedback, online games create an environment where participants are intrinsically motivated to push themselves past the threshold of their own imagination and achieve epic wins.

So how do online games motivate players to spend countless hours making mistakes and building skills…and more importantly, is it possible to create a similar environment with our continuous improvement processes?  Here are a few of the keys to developing world-class online games that I believe are most relevant to leaders.

Provide an epic purpose – give them something worth believing in.  If they don’t see the end goal as worthy of the struggle and pain of the journey, they will abandon the efforts at the first sign of failure.

Start small – to create the momentum of accomplishment, select ideas and improvements that take no more than 1 hour to complete and are completely in their control.  The longer it takes to complete the first actions, the harder it is to create and keep momentum.

Build difficulty over time – like a good game, think about the difficulty of your improvements like levels in a game.  Everyone starts at level one, and as they move up the levels through action and accomplishment, the difficulty and complexity of both the problems and the improvements increase.  In each level, the goal is to have the difficulty be within reach of the player, but hard enough to cause them to struggle and grow as a change agent.

Give consistent real, time feedback – at each stage of the game, feedback is a critical and should be an immediate part of the experience.  Through visuals controls, peer to peer recognition and management follow up, seek to provides ways for team members to know their progress at all times.

Make it social – create a collaborative support structure where both team members and team leaders are supported on their journey.  Have team members work together on both suggesting and implementing ideas.  Finally, manage the improvement process visually, so everyone can see, feel and experience the struggles and victories together.

If we are serious about effecting change, we must acknowledge that without the belief that we can create positive outcomes, it is impossible to create a culture where individuals and teams strive each and everyday to achieve epic wins.  As Bill Strickland said, “we have to change the way we see ourselves before we can change our behavior,” and to change how we see ourselves we have to create an environment where teams create their own “winning streaks.”  Online games do this by allowing teams to start small, level up, get real time feedback and create urgent optimism to inspire your people to go after their own epic wins.  Only after we realize that good continuous improvement systems need to embed the elements of a good game will we consistently move teams from “praying to win, to hoping to win, to knowing they could win, to expecting to win.” (Gail Goestenkors)

Achieving Peak Performance

“No one appreciates the agonizing effort (Miyamoto) Musashi has made.  Now that his years of training have yielded spectacular results, everybody talks about his “God-given talent.”  That’s how men who don’t try very hard comfort themselves.” – Yoshikawa Eiji

Struggling to reach your potential is hard work and in the words of Robert Browning, it is “a road less traveled.”  And while it is not clear why so few put in the time and dedication to discover just how good they can be, it is clear that what is often mistaken for God-given talent is just the byproduct of what Geoffrey Colvin calls “deliberate practice.”  In his book, Talent is Overrated, Colvin dispels the myth that peak performers are predestined for greatness.  Colvin found that not only was future greatness not determined by your genetics, it wasn’t solely a function of hard work either.  In study after study, Colvin found that “many people not only fail to become outstanding at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

In industry after industry, when it comes to mastering critical skills, people with lots of experience are often no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.  Even more scary, when it comes to leadership ability, a study from INSEAD business school found that managers with experience did not produce better quality outcomes (on average) than those without experience….and occasionally, actually got worse with experience.

So if peak performance is not based on talent or hard work alone…how can we escape the “experience trap” and reach our potential?  It turns out there are four keys to becoming a peak performer:

Know the right behaviors – while this may sound easy, discovering the right behaviors you need to master can be a challenge.  Even with keen observation and careful analysis, most peak performers struggle to identify and share the “secrets to their success.”  As I wrote in “Mastering New Skills,” while “there are always explicit aspects of what experts will share and tell you to practice…more often than not the more important points come from the implicit behaviors the experts do, but do not explicitly practice, teach or even notice.”  Begin by narrowing your focus to these behaviors.

Accurately and honestly assess where you are – after identifying the behaviors you want to master, the next step is to baseline your current performance.  The problem is, our brains are programed to tell us the story we want to hear about our level of expertise, rather than the one we need to hear.  That, combined with our fragile egos can spell trouble for seeing the gap between the behaviors we want and those we currently exhibit.

Put in the reps – Next, get your hands dirty and do the work.  I have heard it said that you need to repeat an action 10,000 times before you truly make it a reflexive movement.  Colvin says it takes peak performers 10 years of deliberate practice to make the skill appear God-given.  Either way you look at it, be prepared for work hard, sacrifice and struggle on your way to mastery.

Have faith in the process – finally, you have to believe that if you identify the right behaviors, embrace your gap and do the work, results will follow.  The results always lag the thousands of repetitions, so without an unwavering faith in the process, the odds are high you will quit long before you accomplish your goals.

The formula for achieving greatness is not difficult, but it is demanding.  The road is long and hard and requires both patience and persistence.  To be successful you need to know both the critical behaviors that lead to success and to be open and honest about your current skill level.  Armed with the knowledge of your gap and belief in the process, you can set your sights on internalizing the behaviors and mastering the new skills.

Walking in a Straight Line

“You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.” — Alvin Toffler

Robert Krulwich of NPR distilled decades of research in an attempt to answer the question, “why can’t humans walk in a straight line when blindfolded.”  For over 80 years, scientist have been baffled by the fact that we seem incapable to walk in a straight line if we don’t have sight of a visible guidepost like the sun, the moon or a mountaintop.

With the help of animator Benjamin Arthur, Krulwich used four experiments conducted in the 1920‘s to illustrate this phenomena:

1.  A scientist asks a friend to walk across a field in a straight line, blindfolded…

2.  Three men leave a barn on a very foggy day and set out to walk to a point a mile, straight ahead…

3.  A blindfolded man is asked to jump in to a lake and swim in a straight line to the other side…

4.  A man is asked to drive his car straight across an empty Kansas field…

The curious thing about Krulwich’s examples is that in each case, the subjects walk in a relatively straight line at first but then slowly start to drift.  As soon as they start to drift, the curve becomes more pronounced and they quickly begin to walk in circles until many of them end up where they began.  In each case, without the ability to see a fixed point in the horizon, people are unable to maintain their original trajectory.

Now I can’t remember the last time I blindfolded myself and tried to walk a straight line across a field, but I have witnessed a similar phenomena when organizations attempt to engage and align teams in continuous improvement.  While teams often start out moving in a common direction, without the ability to consistently see a focused and fixed vision of what they are expected to achieve, they quickly start to fall of the path.  Like the subjects in Krulwich’s examples, teams begin to go in circles at an increasing rate until many of them are back where they started.  What’s worse, is that teams are not just back where they started, they are also now frustrated with leadership because they worked hard to make a positive contribution only to end up confused and demoralized.

A leaders job is to define where the organization needs to go and then empower each team member to accomplish the goals through active problem solving and experimentation.  The problem is that merely defining the goal is not enough.  To keep the organization from walking in circles, the leader needs to ensure that each team member can consistently 1) see a focused and fixed vision of what they are trying to achieve and 2) design a system that allows everyone to immediately see when they start to deviate from the path.  Without clear and consistent goals and the ability to see when they start to drift, leaders, in effect, send their team members across the field blind folded.

Be Present and Listen Deeply

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Leaders who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” – Anonymous

Listening is a skill…and for most of us, it is underdeveloped.  When done well, listening is an active event, which leads to a greater understanding of your people, your process and your potential.  When done poorly, listening is a reductive exercise where information and data is cherry picked based on our previous experience, beliefs and biases.  In our Coaching Camp, we teach leaders the importance of listening deeply as a critical step in making an emotional connection with team members.  When a leader develops his / her ability to stay in the moment, they set the stage for a productive partnership where they can inspire team members to engage in continuous improvement and challenge them to grow.

The Japanese have an expression, “ichi go, ichi ei.”  Loosely translated, it means “one time, one meeting” and beautifully demonstrates the concept of listening deeply.  When two people meet in a traditional tea house, they are not allowed to discuss any topic other than their immediate surroundings and the elements of the tea ceremony (the tea, the house, the atmosphere, etc.)  The intent is to develop one’s ability to focus fully on the moment and not be distracted by anything else.  It is a discipline in “being present,” and allows the participants to learn to not only listen to what is being said, but more importantly, what is being communicated.

What effect can listening deeply and being present have on your results?

Risk van Baaren and his colleagues at the University of Nijmegen designed a simple experiment that demonstrated the power of listening deeply and connecting.  The team set up an experiment in a restaurant and asked a waitress to help them.  After seating the customers, she was instructed to take their order in one of two ways.  50% of the time she was to listen politely and then use positive phrases such as “okay” and “coming right up.”  The other 50% of the time, she was asked to repeat the order back to the customers.  The effect of demonstrating she had listened and understood their desires by repeating the customers words back to them was significant.  The customers who had heard their own words repeated left tips that were 70 % larger than those left by the other group.

As team members we all long to feel as if we add value to our organization and that our contribution is recognized by those who lead us.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to make each person feel valuable by removing roadblocks, making the best use of their abilities and listening deeply.  When people feel valuable they create a connection with the organization, each other and those who lead them.  Only when an emotional connection has been made, can you engage your team fully in the process of change and challenge them to reach their potential.

Why Pursuing Big Ideas is Killing Your Culture

The best indicator of successfully developing a continuous improvement culture is your ability to engage people. Because “engagement is all about participation,” according to communications consultant David Sibbet, it is critical that you create a way for people to consistently participate in improvement activities. Creating an annual kaizen event calendar and rotating people on and off improvement teams won’t cut it. You must design a process for individuals to embed change as part of their daily work.

What works best are employee-driven idea systems that focus on small ideas but cultivate them every day in a visual, public way. Not because the ideas themselves are earth-shattering, but because the ability to get them done quickly and demonstrate continued progress is key to motivating people to think big, take risks, and work together to create positive change.

Unfortunately, most leaders have a difficult time believing that thousands of small “unmeasurable ideas” will have any meaningful effect on key financial metrics. As a result, most idea systems quickly die on the vine as leaders create layers of bureaucracy to manage the ideas, and complex return on investment (ROI) criteria to rank each idea in the search of the illusive “game-changing suggestion.” However, when leaders set a clear objective and challenge teams to rapidly implement any idea important to accomplishing their goal, then the true power of creativity and collective energy can be released.

Take an example from the University of Washington. The Grants and Contracts Accounting Group is a 25-member team responsible for the setup, invoicing, reporting, and closing of more than $1.15 billion in annual research grants. When I started working with the team, complex grants could take upwards of 673 days to finalize the outstanding invoices, complete the reporting, and close out the grant in compliance with sponsor requirements. In addition, due to the 228-percent growth in research grants and budget cuts, a backlog of 5,478 grants had developed.

Faced with no new resources and the audacious challenge to eliminate the backlog and cut the time to close to 120 days, we engaged the team and installed a system of daily process improvement. Driven by the goal to identify and solve problems in real time, the team used workflow leveling, pacing, visual controls, and idea pads to capture every roadblock the team encountered. At the end of each day, problems were reviewed and analyzed, and improvements were made so the impact of the change could be viewed the next day. While some of the ideas took multiple days to investigate and implement, the vast majority of the ideas were small, seemingly insignificant changes that could be completed by the next day.

The result? At the end of eight months, the team had eliminated 82 percent of the backlog and increased the number of budgets closed per week by 733 percent. By using a simple daily process to identify and implement small ideas, the team has averaged 4.4 new ideas per person per month and implemented 78 percent of them. It has done this without running kaizen events and without the assistance of internal lean specialists. In fact, change is happening so rapidly that documenting the effect of the ideas has become the enviable problem the team is working to address (at the request of the University).

So why do thousands of small ideas beat a few big ideas every time? Here are a few of the unseen benefits of embracing a “smaller is better” approach to process improvement:

Motivation. Seeing progress is one of the single greatest sources of intrinsic motivation. By documenting and allowing people to see the ideas they have suggested and implemented, and how their ideas have contributed to the larger organizational goals, you give them a simple, consistent, and visual mechanism to see their progress.

Development. By documenting all the small ideas, you create “teachable moments” where you can use actual ideas suggested and implemented to teach others what constitutes good ideas as well as what making progress toward goals each day looks like.

Recognition. By making your idea system visual, it allows you to create a very public method of recognizing all the incremental improvements people are suggesting and implementing. As peer-to-peer recognition is one of the most powerful motivators, the visual element allows teams to celebrate one another and each member’s contribution to their team and the organization.

Sharing. Simple visual idea systems encourage frequent yokoten(knowledge sharing) as each idea is captured, discussed, implemented, and recognized. Unexpected benefits occur during this process as each team member is exposed to the ideas of others and challenged to find opportunities where improvements can be applied in other areas.

Creating an engaged culture isn’t about challenging people to identify and implement ideas that revolutionize the organization. As soon as leaders start thinking the key to change is big ideas, they create systems that seek to identify the best ideas and kill those which do not provide a sufficient ROI. Rather than engage teams, these systems serve as a filter to curb people’s creativity and puts blinders on their “improvement eyes.” More important, by conditioning people to filter their ideas, leaders limit the organization’s ability to tap into the motivational engine that lies within in every team member.

The key to creating a world-class idea system is spending less time asking the question, “Is this a good idea?” and more time building a system where progress is measured by the implementation of thousands of seemingly inconsequential ideas. Leaders’ primary mission is to create an environment that allows all team members to make progress every day and gives them a way to see the progress they are making. Only then will people fully engage and be motivated to change the organization, one idea at a time.

In the end, if you want teams to engage in change, be accountable for their actions, and take ownership of the outcomes, they need to feel good about themselves and the contribution they are making in the organization. Only when team members are clear about the objectives and able to confidently say, “I am better today than I was yesterday” will the organization begin to tap into their limitless ability to help make themselves, their team, and their process great.

 

Learning Change from a LunaTik

Scott Wilson is the founder of MINIMAL (MNML), a hybrid design studio with a growing blue chip client roster, numerous self-manufactured products and joint ventures in development.  An accomplished designer and former Global Creative Director at Nike, his work has received wide recognition around the globe and collected over 40 international design awards in the past 7 years.

Scott and his team are on the cusp of launching TikTok and LunaTik, a new line of products which turn Apple’s iPod nano into a cool multi-touch watch.  While both products are cool in and of themselves, Scott’s unconventional approach to the design and launch of his products provide valuable lessons for anyone building a culture of continuous improvement.

Build on the ideas of others – Watch makers have been trying to figure out how to design a touch watch for years.  Instead of doing all the heavy lifting and trying to create their own watch, Scott spent his time designing products which leveraged the work already done at Apple.  The result is new beautifully engineered watch bands which integrate the existing technology of the Nano.

Details matter – To design a product worthy the Nano, Scott and his team considered every detail when it came to the look, feel and functionality.  Made from aerospace-grade aluminum and built to easily integrate headphones and plug-ins, the LunaTik is a great example of designing with the user experience in mind.

Selling your idea is critical – No matter how good your idea is, if you want it to be adopted and implemented, you need to sell it to others.  To sell their idea and connect potential consumers with their product and design process, Scott created a brilliant short video which became a virtual sensation, spreading his message like wildfire.

Follow your own path – rather than take a conventional route to funding, Scott used the Kickstarter network to introduce his products and take pre-orders to fund the development and launch.  Unlike other funding mechanisms, Kickstarter allows the creators to keep 100% ownership and control over the work and offers products for pledges in an all or nothing format.  If a project reaches its funding goal before time runs out, it proceeds…if not, no money changes hands.  Scott hoped to raise $15,000.  However, armed with a great idea, elegant designs and a video that went viral, MNML broke all previous Kickstarter launch records by raising $941,718 from 13,512 people in a matter of weeks.

So what can a LunaTik teach you about leading change?

First, you don’t always have to be the one with a revolutionary idea to develop great ideas.  It is often more productive to build on the ideas of others than reinvent the wheel in an attempt to be brilliant.  As improv actors will tell you, the secret to developing great scenes is to “accept all offers” and build on the brilliance of others.  Second, when designing a system of continuous improvement, details matter.  While experimentation is a must and mistakes are steps in the learning process, it is still important to consider how both the improvement process you create and the management system you install to support it will work together to drive team member engagement and aligned implementation.  Finally, in the words of Robert Frost “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  When it comes to change, don’t be afraid to reject convention and blaze your own path.  If you are connected to your customer and engage your people, there are many ways to get to a productive end.